Right in the middle of the exhibition “Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys,” which opens Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum, is Kehinde Wiley’s 25-foot-tall 2008 painting “Femme Piquée par un Serpent.” . Featuring a brilliantly but casually dressed black woman lying in a curled-up position against a background of Wiley’s signature flowers, it borrows its title and pose from an 1847 marble sculpture by Auguste Clésinger. What you think about really depends on what you’re looking for.
If you view the painting as a Venti-sized iteration of Wiley’s ongoing project, his decades-long assault on the paucity of black faces in Western museums and art history, it’s singular but hard to argue . Brightly colored and thoughtfully composed, it’s visually appealing, and even today, when it’s no longer so unusual to see black figures on museum walls, seeing one this large still evokes a thrill.
On the other hand, considered strictly as a painting, “Femme Piquée par un Gjarprin” (“Woman Bitten by a Snake”) does not offer as much. There’s no detail you’d miss in a jpeg reproduction, no visible evidence of human hands at play, no sensual pleasure to be found on the surface, nothing surprising, mysterious or enticing. It is simply a skillful illustration of an idea.
Of course, you can also ask for both – for clear conceptual work circle painting (and the historical exclusion of black subjects and artists) that is also a good painting. If you do, you’re likely to respond to “Femme Piquée par un Serpent” with ambivalence and disappointment.
I was thinking about this — about artistic endeavors that succeed and fail at the same time — as I walked through “Giants,” the latest celebrity exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. (“Spike Lee: Creative Sources” closes Sunday; a photography show by Paul McCartney opens in May.) “Giants” draws on the extensive art collection of married music superstars Keys and Beatz (Kasseem Dean), bringing together 98 works – very large and of the latest quality – by 37 artists. Most of them are American, but they also come from several countries in Europe and half a dozen in Africa, and range in generation from Ernie Barnes, who died aged 70 in 2009, to Qualeasha Wood, born in 1996.
Stylistically, however, it would be hard to imagine a more narrowly focused show. That almost all the faces are black, or that wherever there is a political subtext, it involves an issue of particular concern to black Americans, is wonderful. But that the work is almost all figurative, that so much of it is of similar proportions, done in similar colors, composed in the same way, and hung in the same way, is not so great. So many superficial similarities have a flattening effect. It becomes difficult to appreciate the shade or individuality of a part that the first blush looks like a greener or redder version of the part on the left.
If you can handle this flattening effect, you’ll find plenty of great artwork from the collection. (The show is in the museum’s special exhibition space on the first floor, which means you’ll also have to pay $25 per adult to enter.) They include vibrant paintings that South African artist Esther Mahlangu , makes traditional Ndebele house models. ; Arthur Jaffa’s crushing, 7,000-pound truck tire sculpture “Big Wheel I”; a rich room-sized polyptych by Meleko Mokgosi; and 14 charming, oval and round landscapes of Jamaica by Barkley L. Hendricks.
There is an entire wall of black-and-white photographs by Gordon Parks, including both well-known images of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Langston Hughes, and sensitive photographs of less famous faces, and an opposite wall of more candid photographs of colors by Jamel Shabazz. Dressed-up Brooklynites and early pioneers of hip-hop. Deana Lawson’s oversized staged photographs of domestic interiors, hung together on another wall, are as disturbing and powerful as ever. All of these would have been more effective hung around the exhibit rather than crammed together in commercial-looking displays, but the photographs themselves are rarely lost.
A sound suit by Nick Cave is very nice, as is Jordan Casteel’s portrayal of clothing designer Fallou Wadje selling T-shirts in Harlem, and Hank Willis Thomas contributes a 2017 textile piece called “You Shouldn’t Be prisoner of your ideas”. (LeWitt)”. An eight-foot square of green and white stripes with an X in the middle is made from decomposed prison uniforms.
However, before you can get to any of these, you have to go through some sort of shrine to the collectors.
There’s a larger-than-life shot of Keys and Beatz in formal wear, posing on a BMX bike. And some actual bikes from the Beatz collection. And his turntables. And the piano keys used in her 2014 video “We Are Here.” And portraits of the couple by Wiley, Derrick Adams and Shabazz, who shot them by re-enacting a bleak 1970 Gordon Parks photo of Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver with his wife, Kathleen, in Algeria. Once you get to the art, you’ll find it interspersed with small lounge areas surrounded by Bang & Olufsen speakers, the couple’s favorite brand, playing a special playlist compiled by Beatz, as if the couple had invited one of their homes. to see what was on their walls.
The show’s opening credits assert that Beatz and Keys have “stood as giants on our cultural landscape for decades”; there is no mention that Beatz was on the museum’s board until late last year, when he resigned to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, nor had it been announced at press time which pieces, if any, the couple plans to donate to the Museum.
What you say about all this depends, again, on your expectations. Is the point of the whole show to demonstrate how many talented black artists there are in the world? Or to give a boost to some of the younger and lesser known of them? Those are important goals, and it would be hard to argue that the Giants didn’t meet them. You might even imagine that the loud noise of Keys and Beatz — who are influential artists in their own right — is meant to serve as a similar kind of demonstration. Or is it simply the purpose of keeping the museum lights on by getting visitors in the door? Given the current climate, I couldn’t argue with that either.
Still, you can’t help but wonder if the same point couldn’t have been made in a less aesthetically claustrophobic way, one that lacked hagiography and left more room for the subtlety, depth, and sheer complexity possible in visual art. After all, isn’t that what museums should be sharing with new audiences in the first place?
Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys
February 10 through July 7, Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, (718) 638-5000; brooklynmuseum.org.